"A war free from any taint of self-seeking, a war that will secure the
triumph of democracy and internationalize the world!" Randolph Bourne,
1917.* I was born on the presidential election night of 1952, in the final
days of the Korean War. I was a war baby. I am a war survivor. My father
fought in the U.A. Army Air Corps in the war to make the world safe for
democracy; my grandfather fought in the American Expeditionary Forces in
the war to end all wars.
During the first years of my life, when sensation is at its most intense but memory has yet to develop, other military conflicts occurred. I was unaware of them. When I reached the age of reason, the expression we were so prematurely acquainted with during Confirmation training, my most vivid memory is of my mother forcing my brother and me onto our knees to pray, as World War Three was about to commence. It was the time of the Cuban missile crisis.
It didn't occur, of course, unless everything since my birth has been one prolonged world war, as I'm often inclined to think it is. Immediately afterward, gleaned from the front page of the Youngstown Vindicator or from the pages of the ubiquitous Readers Digest, I read of troubling events in the Belgian Congo and in an exotic place called Laos. I had only the vaguest notion of where those places were, but I knew that my country, clean and pure and a beacon to the world's suffering humanity, lead by the bold and youthful John F.
Kennedy, was struggling against dark, sinister and brutal forces.
Pathet Lao seemed a suitably romantic name for the sort of bandits they were
portrayed as being. In my child's mind I tried to imagine if they wore
turbans or conical hats, had yellow or brown skin. But at any rate they
soon gave way to the harsher syllables of Viet Cong. It was now 1964 and
and our heroic crusader-leader was dead.
The Congolese and Laotians and, now, the Vietnamese villains were all shadowy presence; their conspiracies had names, their members didn't. We weren't killing them, we were saving others. Words like geo-political and counterinsurgency and
strategic positioning aren't in the vocabulary of an eleven-year old. No
more than was the word assassination in November of 1963, though I and my
classmates on that day intuitively understood its meaning. (My first
response: "Are we going to war with Russia? China?")
The following year President Johnson, not nearly as swashbuckling, or
trustworthy, as his predecessor had seemed, sent troops into the Dominican
Republic. My father, rarely given to harsh language, erupted. "We have no
damn business being there!" That was the first time I learned it was all
right to disagree with a president's actions. A lesson vividly, almost
constantly, recalled in the intervening years. Besides, what did the
behavior of the Dominicans I saw on television, all normal looking people,
albeit manifesting the saint's glow of righteous ardor, have in common
with the insidious Laotians and sanguinary Congolese I had been taught to
That same year another event occurred that still leaves me shaken.
After the example of the Buddhist monks in Vietnam protesting against
President Ngo Dinh Diem and his successors, a young American Catholic
pacifist, Norman Morrison, set himself on fire in front of Defense
Secretary Robert McNamara's office in the Pentagon. He died a true
martyr's death and the image of his flaming body remains in my memory. His
self-immolation raised the benchmark against which all true, as opposed to
half-hearted and insincere, commitment is measured. The war of hearts and
minds was now the war of mud and blood.
In 1966 two hundred-odd U.S. marines were killed in a single fire fight. I was stunned, grasping for an answer to this prodigal waste of young crusaders' lives. I looked for assurance. What I found, in a subhead of the Toledo Blade from an American Marine commander was, "They were too damned aggressive." Our boys' lives were as expendable as those of the Vietnamese. We were going from the heady days of body counts to the disillusioning days of body bags...
In 1968 the Tet Offensive occurred and the photograph that came to symbolize
it was that of South Vietnamese police commander Nguyen Ngoc Loan firing a
revolver through the head of a young "Viet Cong suspect." The picture must
have appeared in the Sunday newspaper, because I remember my family being
together in the kitchen and my father, who, not untypically, had eased
from "we don't belong there" to "but as we've started it we have to finish
it," becoming enraged. Soldier that he had been, the idea of this brutal,
summary, almost casual snuffing out of a young life was beyond his moral
1969 arrived, the summer of Woodstock, a man on the moon, and sneaking
into a giant tent to see Led Zeppelin on their first American tour.
Somehow the war receded from view and the glittering facade of Corvettes
and color television, of outdoor concerts and the frightened donning of black armbands made
us forget The War. Those things and a panoply of artificial paradises made conveniently available to us. Besides, it now seemed endless, something that would always exist. If I gave it a thought it was with a wistful sigh after the
lines of Rimbaud: "Poor fools! - dead in summer, in the grass/ On Nature's
breast, who meant these men to smile...." A brief interlude of oblivion.
And of cowardice. But unlike the mother's advice to her children, the
ghost didn't go away once you stopped thinking of it.
The next year brought Kent State and the war that really came home. When I heard of the killing of my four contemporaries - and the sense of generational
solidarity, of camaraderie defined us by that time - I expected the voice of
moral outrage to scream to the heavens. It didn't. Instead what we heard
was, "They had it coming." The military Moloch first claimed Indochinese,
then young Marines, now its very children. Like Saturn, Mars devours his own children. The military metaphysic, as one of America's last heroes, C. Wright Mills, phrased it, war now triumphant, both here and abroad. It was on that day of martyrdom that the lesson of Norman Morrison took on a deeper meaning: Not only was the ultimate sacrifice to be demanded of us if necessary, but this was now a war to the death - against war. Blood had been spilt even on our own soil and the death machine that spilled it must be dismantled... But we were also frightened. And, because of the silence or assent offered by our parent's generation to this baptism of blood, we became demoralized. Protesters were assaulted in the streets, Nixon's COINTELPRO instilled paranoia. Melvin Laird and Henry Kissinger staged a dark comedy of peace negotiations, and allowed our weaker selves to hope....
And the siren song of escapism, chemical and other, sounded louder. We could march and hand out leaflets, but the final outcome depended on who won out on the battlefield. Or who would first tire of the conflict. The shamelessly corrupt Thieus and Kys whom the Defense and State Departments had appointed as representatives of the people of southern Vietnam had embarrassed even their sponsors. Besides, China had welcomed Nixon and Kissinger, and we needn't worry any longer about the Red Tide and the Thai domino falling. It was time to pack up and leave. To leave a shattered and poisoned land, and millions of graves, marked and unmarked. Consummatum est - it is finished.
We left something else behind, too. The same establishment journalists and
think tankers who sounded the God Wills It of this unholy crusade now
started bemoaning the loss of American innocence. The loss of American -
and of Laotian, Cambodian and Vietnamese - lives was an acceptable,
virtually negligible, cost to pay in the diversion of 'geo-strategic
doctrine" and the grand chessboards and mutually assured destruction. But
the loss of national innocence - and resolve - was something former
defense secretaries, career diplomats and Cold War architects could wax
reflective on as they faded into the amber autumn of their lives.
I'm not sure that America, or any of us as individuals, lost our innocence.
Surely the Johnsons, McNamaras, Rusks, Westmorelands, Nixons and
Kissingers had little innocence to lose. Many may have, but never risked
it. One doesn't have to read William Blake to ponder the relation between
innocence and experience, and whether the latter is a required step toward
reclaiming the first ("Is this a holy thing to see?"). It's enough that one doesn't lose one's soul. Part of America's soul was lost in Vietnam. It's taken many of my generation years, and no little struggle, to begin, tentatively and guardedly, to learn to love our country again. All of us, veterans and civilians alike, suffer from a species of shell shock, of what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder. We've lived through war; our lives have been one continuous war.
Flash forward, 2001. The lessons of Vietnam. How often have we heard that expression? What lessons? Which Vietnam? Al Gore was quoted in the press two weeks ago, addressing a public school class, on his experiences - with the pen and not the sword - in Vietnam. It was, the vice president of an administration that has hardly let a month go by without bombing some defenseless people, '"a policy mistake." Just that. Not a tragedy. Not a catastrophe. Not cause for
regret or occasion for penance or reparation. A mistake. A mistake because
too many GIs were killed and that made the war unpopular. A mistake
because in the unlikely event anyone of Gore's station was sent into
combat they may have been injured. Or killed.
But now we've learned the lesson of Vietnam: Americans won't be killed. Everyone else will. Nicaraguans, Granadans, Panamanians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Yugoslavs. More unfortunate mistakes will be made, of course - hundreds of women and
children will be killed in a bomb shelter in Baghdad and Serbian civilians
will be burned to death and torn apart in bombing raids. The American
people will hardly notice the deaths of foreigners and the destruction
and dismemberment of other nations. That's what Clinton and his protogee,
as well as their Republican counterparts, are depending on. But then again
LBJ, I'm sure, never expected a Norman Morrison to set an example that
never leaves me in peace. And won't, until the cause of his death and that
of so many others is cleared from the conscience of mankind.
When my father died over three years ago, of a heart attack, a shock to us all, I stood by his gravesite as a neighbor, active in the Veterans of Foreign
Wars, planted a small American flag and a commemorative plaque that read
"War Veteran" in the ground. My oldest nephew, my father's first
grandchild, was standing next to me, fresh from basic training in Fort
Benning and still gung ho. ("What color is the grass?" "Green!" "What
makes it green?" "Blood!") I turned to him, at a moment when nothing can
be rehearsed or contrived, and, trying in my own mind to reconcile the two
symbols in front of my father's headstone, said: "He loved our country,
but he hated war."
* The War And The Intellectuals, by Randolph Bourne. (For complete essay, see:
Copyright 2000 Swans